Emerging church

mouthSomething I quickly discovered about myself when I became part of my Mennonite fellowship is what a blathering loudmouth I am.

Friends have responded to this observation mostly with a heartfelt: “Duh.” So, yeah, as an adult I’ve had to periodically face the fact that my own opinions are not golden coins showering from heaven on grateful fellow humans (marriage also has a way of bringing this into clear detail).

But previously, I never considered facing this fact to be an act of discipleship.

Mennonites try to be really good at conversation. Careful listening is critical to spiritual growth and community life. Lots of time at church is spent listening to each other. We’re encouraged to keep our mouths shut if someone else has something to say. We’re encouraged to not do that thing that people do – that I’ve developed as a practiced skill – to listen at half-attention while preparing my next statement for whenever I can make an interruption.

This revelation may seem like simple manners, but growing up in the church this had never been presented to me as part of the Christian life. “Letting others speak” and “being respectful of other points of view” were far down the list of Christian virtues, far behind “making sure you have the right answer” and “making sure everyone knows it.”

earPROCLAIMING THE TRUTH was our highest call in communicating, and I remember many people cut off for the sake of God’s supposed need for Christians to be constantly proclaiming stuff and never listening. I was rewarded for that kind of behavior – until I became the one asking the wrong questions, and being shut out of conversation.

So I’ve been enjoying cruising the archives of Scot McKnight’s blog Jesus Creed. I’ve revisited last January’s posts about “Conversation” (part 1, part 2, part 3). He explains why emerging Christians value genuinely open and listening conversation in exploring faith, as opposed to the one-way didacticism many of us are familiar with.

But the “art” of conversation can’t be learned in such a context when everything is dominated by right vs. wrong or when it becomes whoever knows the most becomes the teacher. This isn’t conversation; this is lecture or information exchange.

I believe that the emerging movement wants “conversation,” and I believe evangelicals by and large are nervous about it because it has not learned to converse.

I see this as another intersection between the way of life in the Mennonite church and the kind of spiritual life many emerging Christians are looking for.

The Mennonites are not particularly fond of “committees.” But one committee structure involved in difficult community decisions is the “listening committee.” These committees are not engaged in controversy to debate opinions, but to pay careful attention to what people on all sides are saying. Then before the conversation moves toward resolution, everyone turns to the listening committee for their report: they simply report what they heard.

They tackle the most controversial issues in this way. There are listening committees for homosexual concerns, immigration issues, Catholic-Mennonite relationships, congregational diversity, or any kind of topical exploration dealing with multiple perspectives.

old car jpeg

“Speakerguy” is that guy who came to speak at the Christian college where I am on faculty.Because Speakerguy and I are old friends, we spent a lot of time together catching up during his visit to campus.

In the local coffee shop, I asked him about the evangelical leaders he knows: celebrity authors, megachurch pastors, evangelists and non-profit CEOs. I wanted to know what he’d observed doing so much traveling to churches and colleges and religious organizations around the country.

I’m going to try to paraphrase what he told me. This isn’t an exact quote or transcript, I didn’t record our conversation or even think about writing it down. But now a couple weeks later, this is the best I can recall the gist of what he said:

“Dave, people with the theology and commitments like the students you’ve described, people who worship a perfectly loving God who wants them to be radically devoted to making the world a better place, people who aren’t afraid to change their theology to a theology of love and hope – those people are the future of Christianity in the West.”

When I expressed skepticism, because those in power at influential churches and Christian colleges and publishing houses seem devoted to a way of expressing our faith that seems narrow, exclusionary, vengeful, and uncritical of things like empire. He responded by saying,

“The best horse drawn carriages were built after the invention of the automobile. Many people looked at these new cars and laughed them off – they couldn’t possibly represent the future of transportation. But we know how the story goes. You and me and your students are the cars in this story: right now we’re a mess, and we’re loud, and we keep breaking down, and we don’t know where to get gas. But we’re the future, I’m as sure of that as I am that I’m sitting here.”

[continued form yesterday’s post]

C. Wess Daniels (Quaker-aligned, Mennonite-lovin’, recent Fuller Seminary grad) responded to McKenna’s post with his own observations, supportive of the idea that Anabaptism is a wide tent capable of organizing diverse emerging traditions, while connecting new movements with a powerful historical witness:

I too have witnessed in my interactions with people from various traditions that many … are looking for some kind of new (or different) lens from which to understand our faith …. Anabaptism as a tradition is all encompassing and contains within the intellectual framework to bear the weight of an influx of many traditions into it’s vision.

I particularly agree that new emerging Christians would benefit by articulating some connection with a specific tradition so rich in historical integrity. I know it’s been extremely helpful for me.

Legendary emergent blogger Tall Skinny Kiwi chimes in with a post around the same time reviewing the contributions he’d like to see from multiple international Anabaptist flavors. He’s especially enthusiastic about Canadian Mennonites. His post is also helpful because of the books (real, paper books!) he references.

Anabaptist-friendly minister and prolific Brit blogger Graham Old disagrees! Responding to McKnight’s original post in summer ’05, he asks:

What of being a church for the poor? Or radical ecclesiology and anti-Constantinianism? Or communal hermeneutics, or a genuine committment to peace and nonviolence? What about being a church on the fringe, in a long line of such marginalised groups? (And not because it was cool to be “radical” and fly below the radar, but because you weren’t invited to the party.) I would have to say that such features are far from characteristic of the emerging church.

And then later, following up in his comments he clarifies:

I just completely disagree with the idea that the emerging church has an emphasis upon the poor. It may be that particular churches and/or groups of churches do – but I don’t see them doing so because they are emerging. That is, I don’t think it is characteristic of the emerging church.

Of course, I delight in those aspects of the emerging church that do seem anabaptist-ish, but I don’t think there’s enough of them to suggest that the two movements have a similar spirit.

This has been a summary of conversation I’ve found interesting and helpful. More of my own opinions at a later pint in time.

I’m not the first to consider the idea that emerging church finds particular resonance with Anabaptist traditions. This has been a topic discussed and debated in the last couple of years. I’ve been checking out the archives of bloggers I read and have found a rich and interesting conversation about this. I’ll try to summarize and link to the various threads in this post, and maybe comment myself on the points raised in them at a future date.

Back in 2005, Scot McKnight (beloved emerging academic brainiac from North Park) proposed the following in the conclusion to a blog post reflecting on the Brian McLaren book A Generous Orthodoxy:

Now I wish to make a proposal that changes the title of this post: the sort of evangelicalism the EM is striving for is anabaptist. As we in the EM seek to fashion a label and a category for what is going on, perhaps the only genuine label that comes close is “anabaptist.”

Great idea, right? The blog conversation resulting from this post has been rising and falling over the last couple of years.

In May, Jerrod McKenna did some blogging about movements of radical peace witness he’s encountered, and found the phrases “emerging peace church” and “open anabaptist impulse” to be helpful describing what was going on with this spindly branch of the emergent family sapling. He names emphasis on community, an invitational character open even to enemies, elevating non-violence as an essential expression of the spirit of Jesus, and a withdrawal from political forces that employ coercion. He concludes:

In a post-Christendom setting their may be no more important stories to draw on than this ‘Open Anabaptist impulse’ and other similar traditions such as the Early Friends. A witness to the reality of the early churches “power” not being found in positions of prestige but with those in a position of need.

Part 2 tomorrow!

As I’ve spent the last several years learning about and trying to orient my spirituality toward Jesus through Anabaptist theology and church life, I’ve become more and more convinced that recently emerging, counter-cultural expressions of Christian life can be a good fit with what Mennonites are up to all over the United States.

But wait a minute… some of these new movements (Emergent, New Monasticism, etc.) are pretty feisty, even radical. Does that really fit Anabaptists? Aren’t Mennonites more simple folk, the “quiet in the land?”

These days simple living and relating to the land with some quietness can be pretty radical. So can opening your home to strangers, advocating for social justice, living among the poor, praying a whole lot. You know, stuff Anabaptists have been doing for 500 years.

Check out this guy, Mark Van Steenwyk (he blogs here). He lives in Minneapolis and made a small church with some friends. Better yet check out the church’s Web site. Here’s Mark describing the “new monasticism” many use to describe how he and his friends live:


What Christian tradition are these kooky people affiliated with? Some zany social-gospel branch of Episcopalianism? Urban Pentacostalism gone wild? The Franciscans?

Nope. Mark’s a Mennonite pastor, and this radical little church is seeking affiliation with MCUSA.

Mennonites in the U.S. and Canada are starting to wake up to the fact that some of their most deeply held ideals of peace-building, community, service, hospitality, contemplative life, listening, and consensus building are being discussed and taken seriously by the emerging church.

From a MC Canada press release last spring:
“When participants gathered in suburban Philadelphia, for the 2007 Emergent Conversation, they were surprised at how many Mennonites were a part of the group. For Jess Walter, who works with Franconia Mennonite Conference, the reason was obvious …. ‘I told them,’ said Walter, who helped to coordinate part of the gathering, ‘You are on our turf!'”